'Flabby' judgments pilloried

25th July 1997 at 01:00
Ofsted gives poor grades to the language and style of its own reports on schools.

School inspection reports are frequently vague, stylistically flabby, inconsistent and sometimes actually misleading, according to an internal study of 400 inspection reports by the Office for Standards in Education.

The document, which was sent out to inspectors this week, suggests that they are still failing to use the vigorous, unambiguous English that parents and teachers find useful.

It is also the first evaluation of how well inspectors are interpreting the new framework for inspection, introduced in April 1996.

The report follows remarks made by the chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, last week when he criticised his staff for being reluctant to hand out bad marks to teachers.

Over the years OFSTED has repeatedly exhorted its inspectors to produce reports in plain English, but the severity of some of the criticisms in this study casts doubt on the reliability of some reports.

Some inspectors seem incapable of grasping certain educational ideas such as "progress", says the study. "Some key concepts are, like butterflies, elusive. " Lively writing, which includes examples and anecdotes giving a real flavour of the school, "is the exception rather than the rule". The study found that one OFSTED report in seven has weaknesses; few reports are consistently good, though one in seven has some good features.

Although reports have become more consistent, inspectors are warned that they are misleading if they do not explain discrepancies between inspectors' views of standards and exam or test results. The study found many examples of inconsistency and "a strong tendency to dwell on good teaching and to gloss over a significant minority which is less than satisfactory".

One report, for instance, said that "teaching is satisfactory overall", yet included the judgment that 43 per cent of teaching was unsatisfactory or poor. Another praised a school's leadership when standards were very low, casting doubt on the credibility of the whole report.

Meaningless, unsubstantiated judgments were common, such as "teaching is usually satisfactory or better", begging the question "better than what?", or reverted to truism, as in "where teaching is good, pupils are challenged".

Grammatical errors are common, particularly failure to make the verb and subject agree ("assessment and reporting is good"). Misplaced or omitted apostrophes were also a problem. The use of technical jargon has declined, but the study found numerous examples of the anaemic, insipid writing style that is still favoured by many in education, like the school that was advised to "develop a more fully developed culture and system of monitoring".

Inspectors' comments on schools' equal opportunities policies tend to be bland and devoid of examples, while the quality of nurseries attached to primary schools is often neglected.

Reporting on sixth forms is also thin. Reports on special needs, whether in mainstream schools or special schools, are often so vaguely phrased that it is impossible to tell from the writing whether the "special need" is, for example, Down's syndrome or dyslexia.

However, in some respects, schools appear to be much less critical of inspection than Ofsted is - a survey found that 97 per cent of schools thought their inspection report was fair.

This week OFSTED announced a series of measures intended to improve the quality of inspection. From January, schools will be sent statistics every year showing how the performance of their school compares to similar schools; inspectors will have to report on progress or lack of it since the last inspection and heads will get confidential profiles of all staff on a new grading scale (TES, July 18).

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